Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Deddington, Oxfordshire

This is the creature that was never seen…

Looking rather soulfully down at potential customers is this three-dimensional sign on the Unicorn Inn in the Oxfordshire town of Deddington. I’m kicking myself for not having noticed it before, as it’s an appealing sign. But perhaps these days it’s not as affective an eye-catcher as it was – driving past, you are apt to be dodging other vehicles in the town’s busy market place, which is made narrow by parked cars. Walking along the pavement, the sign is easy to miss as you pass, being tucked on its ledge, its white body set against the pale background of the wall behind.

When you do see it, though, it’s arresting, the golden bits helping its white body to stand out against the white wall, and it’s one of those bits of folk art that’s worth admiring. And what a fine and distinctive creature to put on your inn – mythical, enigmatic, elusive (‘This is the creature there has never been,’ begins Rilke’s sonnet on the beast, in J B Leishman’s translation), and yet instantly identifiable all the same.

I’ve managed to miss the Tate Gallery’s exhibition of Folk Art in London, but intend to catch it at Compton Verney soon. I’m hoping that it includes some pub signs – both painted and three-dimensional – along with the marvellous ships’ figureheads, shop signs, felt pictures, and other delights I’ve seen illustrating reviews of the show. Traditional inn signs, it seems to me, offer a terrific opportunity to display works of art out of doors, and the nature of the genre dictates that they be clear, easy to read, and characterful. Even though I found it hard to spot, Deddington’s unicorn makes up in character what it lacks in other ways: it seems to fit the bill.

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If you like this sort of thing, I’ve noticed a few other three-dimensional inn signs on my travels. They include: the uniquely named Dying Gladiator at Brigg, Lincolnshire; the splendid, gold-maned White Lion at Upton on Severn, Worcestershire; the Old Sugar Loaf at Dunstable, Bedfordshire; and the Swan at Wells, Somerset (with musical bonus).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Clifton, Bristol

Old orders changing

Over the years that I have been writing blog posts about England’s buildings I’ve naturally come across a huge number of buildings in the classical style, using one or more of the orders that were originally developed, as the basis of an adaptable architectural and decorative vocabulary, by the builders of ancient Greece and subsequently borrowed, adapted, and added to by later generations. On the blog in the past I’ve shared my appreciation of English versions of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders in buildings as diverse as shops and railway stations. I’ve also come across some more unusual versions – Borromini’s baroque, inverted form of the Ionic capital, for example, and the peculiar but decorative ammonite order developed by the appropriately named architect Amon Wilds.

Strolling around Clifton one evening not long ago, I came across another, with a capital that has two rows of leaves – acanthus at the bottom, and taller leaves rising above them and curling over at the top. It does not belong to the accepted group of orders, but with its mouldings and acanthus leaves is unmistakably classical. What can it be? I take it to be a version of the Pergamene order, an uncommon order named after Pergamon in Turkey, where it’s used on the Temple of Trajan. It’s also found on the Stoa of Eumenes on the Acropolis at Athens (Eumenes was a king of Pergamon). In its rare ancient outings, this order usually has a capital with one ring of gently curving leaves; these are said by architectural writers to be like palm leaves, but, like many architectural leaves, they are very much altered and stylized. The Pergamene capital may also, as here in my British example, have a row of acanthus leaves.

Well, whether or not that is what it is, the order is decoratively used on this building, harmonizing with the swags in the entablature above it. Also these curved forms – leaves, capitals, columns, swags, and so on – help the structure turn the corner gracefully and gave masons and stone carvers an interesting opportunity to show off their skill. On a sunny evening – how classicism benefits from a dose of sun! –  they come crisply into their own.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Louth, Lincolnshire

Fifty years on

Looking at a cast-iron street sign in Bridgnorth recently, I was reminded of other places where I’ve seen such signs and one of these is the market town of Louth in Lincolnshire, a town that still retains a lot of its Georgian and Victorian buildings as well as a late-medieval church which boasts what I think is England’s most graceful spire. Something that struck me when I visited relatives in Louth as a child was not the buildings but the street names – Louth is one of the places, like York, that has many names ending in ‘gate’, a suffix that derives from a Nordic word for ‘street’ and dates back to Viking times. Louth has streets called Eastgate, Northgate, Upgate, Kidgate, Chequergate, and Gospelgate. I’m sorry I don’t have a photograph of one of the signs to share with you, but anyone who has a copy of Peter Ashley’s More From Unmitigated England will find a couple reproduced there.

Gospelgate was where as a small boy I went to visit an elderly great aunt, who lived in one of the Bede Houses, a small group of tiny dwellings around a courtyard on a corner. I did not know it at the time, but these houses for the aged were designed by James Fowler, one of Lincolnshire’s most celebrated Victorian architects. Fowler of Louth designed churches in numerous Lincolnshire villages and restored still more. Many local vicarages, houses, hospitals, and schools also began life on his drawing board. He liked Gothic, and did shops and houses in a vigorous Gothic, as well as churches.

For the Bede Houses, though, Fowler turned to a kind of brick Tudor revival style, with tall chimneys and stone dressings, matching the nearby Grammar School, which he also designed. The upper houses are accessed via very un-Tudor balconies held up on slender columns. Are these columns made of cast-iron? I think they might be. I remember the interiors of the houses as very small, but adequate. I hope they have been modernised inside by now, but I’m pleased that the exterior is very much as it was. It reminds me of visits long ago, plentiful supplies of sweets produced from my aunt’s cupboards, and puzzling over odd street names, some fifty years ago.

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Photograph of the Bede Houses by Richard Croft, used under this Creative Commons licence.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Malmesbury, Wiltshire

What we see, and when we see it

Standing next to a friend who’s a professional photographer, I know he’s aware of everything that’s going on in front of him – and quite a bit that’s happening behind, too. The wind is blowing this way, which means that in a minute the clouds will part and the sun will shine. It’s worth waiting, even if you're backed into a prickly bush to get the right viewpoint. When it comes, the sun will shine over there, setting this door surround into rich and picturesque shadow while making the paintwork of the door shine beguilingly. There’s a telephone wire over there, so we’ll move a little to the left so that it doesn’t form a distraction in the frame. On the other hand, there’s a woman in a red polka-dot dress up the road: in a minute she’ll walk into shot and her dress will make that green door glow all the more as she passes it. The pulse increases. Sun, shadow, door, dress, all in perfect alignment. The decisive moment. The Leica makes its barely audible click. And on we go to the next shot.

Naturally I try to learn from this example, but it’s slow going. I am still apt to make the beginner’s mistake of concentrating too closely on the main subject, to the exclusion of all else, and ignoring intrusive distractions at the edges of the frame. Of course, back in the studio (formerly the darkroom) even the professional photographer discovers unexpected things lurking in the shadows or on the edges, as the film Blow Up showed.

Not, I’m glad to say, that I’ve ever discovered anything as sinister as the corpse that the David Hemmings character in Blow Up discovers when he starts enlarging his prints. But even so, odd things crop up. One freezing afternoon in Malmesbury, my thoughts frankly on finding a warming cup of coffee or getting back in the car, I couldn’t resist defying the bitter wind and pointing the camera at this Gothic gateway, leading into the abbey churchyard. A bit of Georgian semi-gothic, with Y-tracery in the windows but a semicircular archway: a picturesque mishmash, in fact. Very satisfactory. Click. When I got home I saw, in the right-hand side of the frame, on this bone-chilling day, a chap erecting a folding chair. It really is remarkable what you see in photographs.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


More of the black stuff

As a brief follow-up to my post of a butcher’s shop from Ashby de la Zouch, here’s a jeweller’s in Worcester in a similar style. Again black cladding has been combined with these rather classical letters – here surviving in full apart from a pesky detached bracket. There are very effective and no doubt early display units in the window too. And I especially like the black and white striped blind that complements the colour scheme of the shop front.

The whole ensemble – which continues around the corner – creates a facade that is eye-catching, drawing in the window shopper to admire the watches and jewellery on display. Perhaps this attractive and shiny frontage, which must surely be very effective at stopping passers-by and drawing them in, is one reason why the business has survived so long.